Haitian Vodou or Vaudou (Anglicised as Voodoo) is a syncretic religion originating from the Caribbean country of Haiti. It is based upon a merging of the beliefs and practices of West African peoples who were uprooted from Africa and imported to Haiti in the African slave trade (mainly the Fon and Ewe) with local Taíno religious beliefs, and European spirituality including Roman Catholic Christianity, European mysticism, Freemasonry, and other influences.
Under slavery, African culture and religion was suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people pooled their religious knowledge and from this fragmentation became culturally unified.
A book called Haiti or the Black Republic by S. St. John was published in 1884 and described Vodou as a profoundly evil religion, with vivid of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Unfortunately it started a wave of fear negative connotations and misconceptions against Voodoo. Hollywood found this a rich source for horror screen plays and associated it with zombies, voodoo dolls and other monstrous clichés.
Today, Vodou is practiced not only by Haitians but by Americans and people of many other nations who have been exposed to Haitian culture. Haitian creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, some of the outer islands of the Bahamas, the United States, and anywhere that Haitians have emigrated to.
Bondye is the supreme god in Haitian Vodou (from the French bon Dieu (good God)). Followers of Vodun or Vodouisants regard Bondye as the creator of everything but do not believe they can contact Him for help. Instead, Vodouisants aim their prayers to lesser entities, the spirits known as lwa, lowa or mistè. The most notable lwa include Papa Legba (guardian of the crossroads), Erzulie Freda (the spirit of love), Simbi (the spirit of rain and magicians), Kouzin Zaka (the spirit of agriculture), and The Marasa, divine twins considered to be the first children of Bondye.
These lwa can be divided into 21 nations, which include the Petro, Rada, Congo and Nago.
There are hundreds of minor spirits. Those which originated from Dahomey are called Rada; those who were added later are often deceased leaders in the new world and are called Petro. Some of these are:
- Agwe: spirit of the sea
- Aida Wedo: rainbow spirit
- Ayza: protector
- Baka: an evil spirit who takes the form of an animal
- Baron Samedi: guardian of the grave
- Dambala (or Damballah-wedo): serpent spirit
- Erinle: spirit of the forests
- Ezili (or Erzulie): female spirit of love
- Mawu Lisa: spirit of creation
- Ogou Balanjo: spirit of healing
- Ogun (or Ogu Bodagris): spirit of war
- Osun: spirit of healing streams
- Shango (or Sango): spirit of storms
- Yemanja: female spirit of waters
- Zaka (or Oko): spirit of agriculture
Voodoists believe that each person has a soul which is composed of two parts: a gros bon ange or "big guardian angel", and a ti bon ange or "little guardian angel". The latter leaves the body during sleep and when the person is possessed by a Loa during a ritual. There is a concern that the ti bon ange can be damaged or captured by evil sorcery while it is free of the body..
In order to navigate daily life, vodouists cultivate personal relationships with the lwa through the presentation of offerings, the creation of personal altars and devotional objects, and participation in elaborate ceremonies of music, dance, and spirit possession. Rituals are held to celebrate lucky events, to attempt to escape a run of bad fortune, to celebrate a seasonal day of celebration associated with a Loa, for healing, at birth, marriage and death.
A Vodun temple is called a hounfour (or humfort). At its center is a poteau-mitan a pole where the God and spirits communicate with the people. An altar will be elaborately decorated with candles, pictures of Christian saints, symbolic items related to the Loa, etc.
After a day or two of preparation setting up altars at an Hounfour, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African "langaj" that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the "Priyè Gine" or the African Prayer.
After more introductory songs, beginning with saluting Hounto, the spirit of the drums, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legba family through all the Rada spirits, then there is a break and the Petwo part of the service begins, which ends with the songs for the Gede family.
Animal sacrifice is usually performed; this may be a goat, sheep, chicken, or dog. The possessed dancer may drink some of the blood. The hunger of the Loa is then believed to be satisfied. The animal is usually cooked and eaten. Animal sacrifice is a method of consecrating food for consumption by followers of Vodun, their gods and ancestors.
The dancing will typically build in intensity until one of the dancers (usually a hounsis) becomes possessed by a Loa and falls. The possessed dancer will behave as the Loa and is treated with respect and ceremony by the others present. .When a ceremony is made, only the family of those possessed is benefited. At this time it is believed that devious mambo or houngan can take away the luck of the worshippers through particular actions.
Many hours later, as morning dawns, the last song is sung, the guests leave, and the exhausted hounsis, houngans, and mambos can go to sleep.
On the individual’s household level, a Vodouisant or "sèvitè"/"serviteur" may have one or more tables set out for their ancestors and the spirit or spirits that they serve with pictures or statues of the spirits, perfumes, foods, and other things favored by their spirits. The most basic set up is just a white candle and a clear glass of water and perhaps flowers.
On a particular spirit’s day, one lights a candle and says an Our Father and Hail Mary, salutes Papa Legba and asks him to open the gate, and then one salutes and speaks to the particular spirit as an elder family member. Ancestors are approached directly, without the mediating of Papa Legba, since they are said to be "in the blood".
There is no central authority in Haitian Vodou, since "every mambo and houngan is the head of their own house", as a popular saying in Haiti goes. Another consideration in terms of Haitian diversity are the many sects besides the Sèvi Gine in Haiti such as the Makaya, Rara, and other secret societies, each of which has its own distinct pantheon of spirits.
Vodun priests can be male (houngan or hungan), or female (mambo). They are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors and received the divination from the deities while he or she was possessed. In Haiti, a houngan or mambo is considered a person of possible high power and status who acquire much money; it now is a growing occupation in Haiti, attracting many an impoverished citizen to its practice, not only to gain power but to gain money as well
Below the houngans and mambos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries.
The houngan and mambos traditionally confine their activities to "white" magic which is used to bring good fortune and healing. However caplatas (also known as bokors) perform acts of evil sorcery or black magic, sometimes called "left-handed Vodun". Some believe that a bokor can use poisons and capture a person’s soul to create a zombie. These poisons are mainly derived from puffer fish and other poisonous substances.
Many Haitians involved in the practice of Vodou have been initiated as Houngans or Mambos. Some vodouists with a hunger to live a life of wealth and power became practitioners so they could exploit foreigners and Haitians who are uneducated about Vodou, bringing them into a web of deceptions to collect large incomes in exchange for poor quality work.
One belief unique to Vodun is that a dead person can be revived after having been buried. After resurrection, the zombie has no will of their own, but remains under the control of others. In reality, a zombie is a living person who has never died, but is under the influence of powerful drugs administered by an evil sorcerer. Although most Haitians believe in zombies, few have ever seen one. There are a few recorded instances of persons who have claimed to be zombies.
Veves and Kongolese pakets
Among the few magical objects specific to Haitian Vodun, there are the gardes, small cloth bags containing roots and leaves, the medals of guardian saints (St. James or St. Michael) pinned to garments that come in contact with the skin and the paquets.
And, of course, the veve that symbolize the deities of the Haitian pantheon, symbols reduced to the purity of simple lines drawn on the ground, each one evoking a spirit. The veve is usually drawn on the floor by strewing a powder-like substance, such as cornmeal, wheat flour, bark, red brick powder, or gunpowder. Every Loa has his or her own unique veve, although regional differences have led to different veves for the same loa in a few cases. Sacrifices and offerings are usually placed upon them. Veves derives from the beliefs of the native Tainos.
Paket kongo are Haitian spiritual objects made by vodou priests and priestesses (houngans and mambos) during Petwo ceremonies. Their name comes from the ancient Kongo Kingdom in Africa, where similar objects called nikisi wambi are found. Paket kongo are said to have the power of “heating” or activating the lwa. Hence the term pwen cho (hot point) sometimes used to refer to them. Paket serve as power objects and are kept on vodou altars and used in healing ceremonies. They are also used as protective amulets in people’s homes, bringing health, wealth and happiness.
Their efficacy supposedly depends on a technique of careful wrapping – seven or nine times – symbolic of an umbilical cord connecting the charm to the universe. Indeed, their appearance roughly resembles that of a human body (some have arms), and their colors and ornamentation are sometimes, but not always, symbolic of a specific lwa.